Culture  /  Book Review

The Great American Poet Who Was Named After a Slave Ship

A new biography of Phillis Wheatley places her in her era and shows the ways she used poetry to criticize the existence of slavery.

The version of Wheatley that Waldstreicher paints is the one I’ve always wished I’d known. What Black student (especially if she aspires to be a writer) can forget the first encounter with Wheatley’s famous (or infamous) poem, “On Being Brought From Africa to America”? I met this poem during college in a challenging African American–literature survey course, in which our lectures emphasized the complexity of African American subjectivities and the double-voiced discourses of the Black literary tradition. Nevertheless, I cringed when reading it silently to myself in a dorm room, and again when hearing it read aloud, the words echoing through the lecture hall. “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land / Taught my benighted soul to understand / That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too, ” Wheatley had professed. I pleaded with Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book and one of the first North American women to publish a book of poetry: Certainly, you could not mean you were glad to be enslaved. Surely, you must not mean that slavery was a saving grace. Wheatley did not answer, so I argued with myself as I parsed her line describing “Negros, black as Cain.” This cannot be right. This cannot be all. This cannot be. Something was amiss beneath the surface of her seemingly placid poem, but it was hard for me to pinpoint what or where, to name the mechanics of literary resistance.

As a senior historian of early America with a love of poetry (which runs in the family, according to the book’s acknowledgments) Waldstreicher possesses the right tool kit for disassembling Wheatley’s words. He argues with absolute and convincing confidence that Wheatley harbored a political as well as poetical will, which she directed toward securing her survival, her emancipation, and the freedom of what she called her “sable” race—even as she came to side with the imperfect American colonies against Great Britain. Hers was political poetry. She successfully navigated her social context, in which one wrong move, one misplaced word, could lead to the withdrawal of her owners’ support for her writing, or even to her sale. She wielded her words with exacting control out of necessity. Many of Wheatley’s phrases and lines that seem disparaging of Africa or Black people can be read as sarcastic or sardonic, Waldstreicher shows, especially when placed beside her other writings, such as letters to friends and associates of color—like the enslaved woman Obour Tanner and the Mohegan preacher Samson Occom—and rediscovered poems.